Valeri and Steve Lantz-Gefroh of Rocky Point have their acting careers to thank for bringing them together 19 years ago: The couple fell in love while working together at the American Players Theater in Spring Green, Wisconsin, while Valeri was playing Portia and Steve was playing Bassonio in a production of "The Merchant of Venice."
"A lot of couples don’t work well together, but one of the gifts of our relationship is having this kind of collaborative journey as artists together," Valeri said.
Steve calls Valeri his soulmate, saying, "You hear about these things in romance novels, so I thought it was a literary convention. But it was literally love at first sight."
On the strength of that creative unity, the Lantz-Gefrohs joined another collaborator, Paul Kassel, to establish the Asylum Theatre Company 10 years ago. The group took an extended break after Kassel pursued another opportunity, but returned to action in 2011 to produce a surrealistic adaptation of "The Tempest" at Stony Brook University's Staller Center as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company Open Stages Project.
Now, Asylum Theatre Company is staging its second production in the span of a year: "The Clean House," a play by Sarah Ruhl that won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well.
Valeri and Steve star as Lane and Charles, respectively. Charles gets involved with another woman, and the audience meets the couple's Brazilian maid Mathilde, who hates cleaning houses, along with other compelling characters.
"It’s a play about love, and it’s sort of in a comic setting," Valeri said. "It uses the idea of the clean house as a kind of metaphor for who we are on a personal level, how much we’ll be able to accept in terms of the mess that lives inside of us, and how we cope."
Steve credits Valeri for much of the production's success. "Sarah Ruhl writes brilliantly for women, and Val’s an especially strong woman," he said. "For her to be acting in this, directing in this, co-producing this, still having time for the kids and working full time at Stony Brook ... I couldn’t do it. I think she’s pretty incredible."
And Valeri credits Staller Center director Alan Inkles with helping breathe new life into Asylum, saying his vision for the center's black box theater helped inspire the project.
"He’s been a guardian for us in helping us shepherd this company back alive again," Valeri said.
The Staller Center hasn't produced live theater in about 20 years, when the center welcomed The International Theatre festival, according to Inkles.
"Val and her team have brought legitimate and intimate Broadway/off-Broadway style theatre back to our center," Inkles said. "It's been the piece that I have felt has been missing from our expansive lineup of live and film programs."
Like "The Tempest," "The Clean House" incorporates video elements to illustrate shifting realities. Valeri directs and Deborah Mayo, Laura Ross, and Catherine Zambri also star, with Mitchell Riggs helping as an assistant director.
The play opened Thursday to a sold-out crowd and continues with performances through Sept. 23 and again from Sept. 27 through Sept. 30. It opens the new season at the Staller Center, a season which will also include performances by David Sanborne (Oct. 13), the Grammy-winning Emerson String Quartet (Oct. 17 and Nov. 27), Colin Quinn (Oct. 27), the Shaolin Warriors (Dec. 2), and more. Tickets to the play are $28; click here to visit the Staller Center box office.